Saperia: Why didn’t Canada designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization?

Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and the IRGC is the primary organ through which Iran operationalizes this.

By Sheryl Saperia

October 8, 2022

When the Trudeau government imposed sanctions earlier this month against a handful of Iranian individuals and entities for gross human rights violations such as the killing of Mahsa Amini, there was great concern that this represented the summation of the federal response to Iran’s egregious behaviour.

It was therefore reassuring to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland announce additional measures against the Iranian regime on Friday — including rendering thousands of high-ranking officials in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian regime permanently inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

But the announcement was also puzzling. Trudeau and Freeland stated in a press conference that they would use all the tools at their disposal to hold the Iranian regime to account, to recognize that the Islamic Republic is a terrorist regime and that the IRGC is a terrorist organization, and to push back against this barbaric regime. This strong language is commendable but does not seem to match with their refusal to list the IRGC as a terrorist entity under the Criminal Code.

Was this to deprive Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, who has been championing this measure in recent days in the House of Commons, of a win? Why not truly use all the tools at the government’s disposal?

Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and the IRGC is the primary organ through which Iran operationalizes this.

One branch of the IRGC, the Quds Force, is already listed as a terrorist entity in Canada. But the branches of the IRGC are not watertight compartments. They are an integrated whole, operating under the control of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and serving the regime’s overriding goals of obtaining regional mastery, exporting the revolution, and combatting Iran’s enemies — foreign and domestic.

The prime minister suggested that the Criminal Code terror listing was not an appropriate mechanism for a state organization such as the IRGC. However, Canada has used this very mechanism with Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which simultaneously operate as terrorist organizations and within the framework of state political systems. Moreover, in those terror listings, Canada did not distinguish between the organizations’ political-state wings and military-terrorist wings. The entire entities were listed. This precedent should apply with respect to the IRGC.

What does a terror listing accomplish? It is a criminal offence for Canadians to engage in financial dealings with a listed terrorist entity, or participate in, contribute to, or enhance its activities. Designating the IRGC as a terrorist entity would zero in on the nexus between terrorism and business, providing a means to disrupt the financial support network for terrorist activity. The IRGC controls substantial swaths of the Iranian economy, and a terror designation would rightly cause Canadian companies and banks to evaluate whether they are working with an Iranian company that supports terrorist activities.

Some have raised the issue that Iranian men are conscripted into the military and therefore should not suffer the consequences of a terror listing. But it is worth asking whether the person who launched two missiles at Ukrainian Flight 752 (PS752), murdering everyone on board, including many Canadians, would be among the upper echelon captured under the government’s new measure. Could it be that “just following orders” is an acceptable excuse in the eyes of the Canadian government when it comes to spilling innocent blood?

If conscription is indeed a sticking point for the federal government, perhaps it is possible to carve out exceptions to any consequences of a terror listing by considering the length of time an individual served in the IRGC. Mandatory service in Iran generally ranges from 18 to 24 months. If an individual served in the IRGC only for the minimum amount of time and can prove that they were not involved in terrorist activity, a case could be made that they should be exempt from any restrictions.

One arm of the IRGC for which conscription is not an issue is the Basij Resistance Force. This is a volunteer paramilitary force that is under the formal authority of the IRGC, responsible for suppressing domestic anti-regime activity through intimidation and street violence. After the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential elections, for example, the Basij quashed protests and attacked student dormitories on university campuses. That same year, the Basij shot and killed 26-year-old Neda Soltan, who became a symbol of resistance after a video of her final moments went viral.

Some analysts have argued against an IRGC terror listing because the government is not equipped to enforce it in all cases. One hopes that such a defeatist attitude would not influence Canadian policies on important matters of principle and national security. Just because a law cannot be enforced perfectly does not mean that it should not be law. Regardless, the Trudeau government moved to address this concern by announcing on Friday that it would be strengthening its capacity to implement sanctions.

The growing crisis of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy may be a true threat to its survival, and Canada and the West should do whatever they can to divest the regime of any vestige of this treasured commodity. It demands a boldness of action that reflects the stunning courage of Iranian protesters. The federal government should delay no further in designating the IRGC as a terrorist entity under the Criminal Code.

Sheryl Saperia is chief executive of Secure Canada, which was founded by Canadian 9/11 victims and is dedicated to combatting terrorism and extremism through innovative laws, policies and alliances.

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